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Keeping the Empty Tomb in our Hearts and Turning our Crosses into Victory

By Fr. Joshua Makoul

Having completed Holy Week and Pascha, we were able to experience the transition from the long, darker services of Holy Thursday and Holy Friday to the brighter and joyful services of Holy Saturday, Pascha, and Bright Week. For many, having labored through Lent and Holy Week, this transition to joy, hope, and relief is an emotional occasion and reminder of many things. Indeed, this transition that the Church has given us to experience has far more meaning for our own life than we might realize. It is a reminder that in the end, God is always triumphant and victorious. It means that in the end everything will be okay. It means that this world will never have the final say. It means that behind every cross is a potential new life waiting to be had, behind every struggle is God’s promise to wipe every tear from our eye, that behind every moment of despair or struggle is hope and joy waiting to break forth, that behind every hurt there is healing, and that behind every crucifixion we endure there is a resurrection waiting to occur.

Behold, the barren cross where Jesus suffered and died is now covered in white flowers and ivy and adorned with a triumphant floral wreath. The symbol of suffering has become the new tree of life. There is a great gift and mystery revealed in this transition for those who are open to receiving it. We are called to transform our own crosses of struggle and suffering that we bear in this life into victorious crosses of hope, joy, and new life. Jesus has revealed the path that we are to take for this transformation to occur.

We all have, will have, or have had crosses to bear in this life. Perhaps it is some trial or tribulation, or an experience where we were hurt or betrayed by someone else. If we just respond correctly to and work through these crosses in the way Christ showed us, they too can be transformed into the life giving and triumphant cross that we see in church now. We look at the cross now so adorned and we reflect at what a struggle had occurred at that place but now it is a place of peace and a reminder of God’s promise. This needs to happen with our own crosses.

As the time drew near for Jesus to head to Jerusalem, where He knew what awaited Him, His fear and trepidation grew. However, he remained obedient to the Father and did not try to turn away or avoid what awaited Him. He trusted and forged on though experiencing fear and anxiety. Jesus knew and trusted that any suffering that laid ahead would be wiped out and ended by the joy and power of what followed. We remember when Jesus, at the last supper, used the analogy of childbirth to illustrate what lied ahead for Him and us; when the hour has come for the birth to occur we have sorrow due to the pain of labor, but once the child has been born, there is no more sorrow, only joy that a human being has been born. Jesus applied this to his impending crucifixion and resurrection. Even when Jesus prayed for Him to be spared the experience of the crucifixion He ended the prayer with the words, “not as I will, but as you will.” He trusted, remained faithful, remained obedient, He prayed, He forgave, He did not lash out at others, He did not blame, He did not become bitter, He did not reenact what was done to Him on others (we can never be healed of our hurt so long as we are reenacting it on others), nor did He respond in any way that caused hurt or pain to others. In doing so He emerged from the cross having destroyed our spiritual deaths, repaired the relationship between God and man, and restored fallen humanity.

The relief, joy, and resolution of all of our crosses will come whether while still in this life or in the next. As St. Paul said, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him.” It cannot happen any other way so long as we follow the way Jesus taught us when we bear our own crosses.

Indeed, all of the crosses and places of struggle in our own lives can be transformed into places where a great struggle had once occurred but is now a place of light, joy, reflection, peace, and hope no matter how great was the loss and struggle. Our hearts can become a place like the empty tomb, devoid of struggle, but filled with hope, trust, light, and God’s love. If we maintain faith, maintain peace, forge on, not give into darkness and anger, persevere, pray, forgive, and do all the things Jesus did as he journeyed to Jerusalem and did on the cross, then we will emerge victorious from every struggle in our life and emerge a new person. If the cross is resolved while yet in this life then we will emerge a different person, better radiating the light, peace, love, and joy of Christ. If the cross or struggle is resolved in the next life, when we depart this world, then it will have been for our salvation and the ultimate new life. This is how good triumphs over evil and how our crosses are transformed.

In the gospel reading for the Paschal liturgy we hear the words from the Gospel of John, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.” Remember the beautiful and moving words sung when we come to take the paschal light on Easter night, “Come receive light from the light, that is never overtaken by night, come glorify Christ risen from the dead!” As long as we stay close to Christ and emulate Him we can never be defeated by any cross, struggle, or evil. As our Lord said at the last supper, “These words I have spoken to you, that in Me you will have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” As the saying goes, there is no earthly pain or sorrow that heaven cannot heal. The path to victory over this life, this world, and over all of our pain, losses, and suffering, lies with clinging onto Christ with blind trust and hope every moment of our life. The joy and hope of God’s love and promise to us will always be there and be the final word. Every cross will be empty and a place of hope and peace. Every broken heart will be like the space of the empty tomb, filled with light and devoid of pain and sorrow. God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Father Joshua Makoul is Dean of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA, and a licensed therapist.